This research explores the lived experience of coming out to your parents as a gay man. Ross’s coming out occurred around ten years ago and it would be helpful to put his experience into context from the outset to assist the readers understanding. He comes from a small Scottish town with a population of around 2,500 people, the demographic data revealing a higher than average percentage of older people residing there. When Ross was in his late teens and first discovering his sexual identity, there was considerable stigma across society and more particularly in small, rural towns concerning a variation in sexual orientation from the norm, that is, heterosexuality. It is not clear whether this is still the case in his home town in 2015 or if attitudes have shifted in line with the increase in tolerance across society in general. Nevertheless, at the time it was Ross’s experience that his wider environment was not willing or able to accept his homosexuality and in fact he faced considerable risk of threats, harassment and even physical violence for being openly gay. These risks still exist in today’s society of course, a report by Stonewall published in 2013 estimated that 1 in 6 lesbian, gay and bisexual people have been the victim of a homophobic hate crime in the past three years ranging from verbal threats to physical abuse and violence. This is echoed in Ross’s decision to come out to his parents on the telephone, one of the reasons he cited for this was to avoid the risk of being physically attacked as a result of the disclosure.
It is therefore safe to assume, and is indeed confirmed in the narrative that the microcosm of his family life reflected and reinforced the homophobic views of the town in which he lived. He describes a lack of tolerance towards any sort of ‘difference’ in his parents attitudes not limited to sexual orientation but also including differences in race, religion, ethnicity etc. This was implicit in his parents subtle put downs and intolerance to gay issues, going quiet when a gay character appeared on TV for example. Ross describes how he knew virtually no gay people growing up and had limited access to positive role models in the media increasing his sense of isolation and of being the “black sheep”. The first time he has access to a more accepting, supportive environment is when he embarks on a relationship and begins to visit Luton where he discovers a different, more tolerant attitude towards his sexual orientation. As his world expands beyond the confines of Langholm, he finds within it the strength and courage to reveal his sexual orientation and risk unleashing the force of the stigma around him. In coming out as gay, he risks isolation from his parents, alienation from the wider family and rejection from the community in which he lives. It is therefore not difficult to appreciate how grave an undertaking this must have felt to him.
It is also worth mentioning that whilst I have used the term ‘coming out’ as though it is an isolated incident, in actual fact coming out is an ongoing process which features time and again throughout a gay person’s life. If the experience of coming out to one’s parents is traumatic, it will likely impact the person’s ongoing attitude to revealing his or her sexual orientation to people they encounter in life such as friends, work colleagues and so on. In fact, in any area of a gay person’s life they may be required to reveal details of their partner (such as when making financial applications) and therefore will disclose their sexual orientation to strangers on a regular basis (Oswald, 2000). This highlights the vital importance of these early experiences of coming out as being positive ones and how, if they are not, the result may be an ongoing struggle of hiding, pretending or outright denial of a person’s sexual identity throughout his or her life.
There have been attempts to carry out research on the effects of coming out on a family system however they are limited and the vast majority of empirical research into the topic of coming out centres on the process and its effect on parent-child relationships. As this piece of research focuses on the latter, I will limit the review to focus on the coming out process as it relates to the parent-child dyad.
It has been suggested that once a person has identified him or herself as gay, which may take a number of years in itself, they will typically wait for a further period of two years before disclosing their sexual orientation to someone else (D’Augelli, Hershberger & Pilkington, 1998). Furthermore, studies suggest that when coming out to parents disclosure is usually made to a person’s mother first, then father (Savin-Williams, 1998). This would concur with Ross’s experience as described in the narrative. Although he chose to come out fairly soon after establishing a serious relationship with a man, it is clear from the latter parts of the interview that he had struggled with understanding his sexual identity for some years prior. He also decided to speak with his mother first, assuming that she would be more receptive and supportive which concurs with the evidence base.
It is apparent that the quality of the parent-child relationship prior to the child’s coming out will affect the extent to which the experience is a positive one. In 1994 Leaveck carried out a study on the relevant factors which led to a positive coming out experience by surveying lesbian and gay college students. This study demonstrated that factors such as effective problem solving and communication skills within families were the most desirable attributes during the coming out process. If the family unit is able to utilise clear communication strategies and work together to problem solve difficult issues arising from the disclosure, they will be better placed to adjust to the change and enable the coming out process to be a positive, accepting experience.
Another important element of Ross’s coming out was the fact that he lived in a small, rural part of Scotland where access to resources and support surrounding gay issues is limited. A study of 105 lesbian, gay and bisexual youth found that those who live in more densely populated, urban areas had increased access to social groups and organisations which could provide support in the aftermath of a negative coming out experience. Those who lived in more rural areas, such as Ross, had an increased sense of isolation resulting from limited access to social groups, support groups and other gay affirmative resources (D’Augelli et al, 1998).
Research demonstrates that the possibility of outright parental rejection is the biggest fear of those disclosing their sexual orientation to family members. This fear is often justified for parents typically react with feelings of shock, anger, shame and rejection immediately following disclosure (Ben-Ari 1995). This initial phase is usually followed by a period of readjustment and eventually acceptance. The process has been used to formulate various models of coming out which describe a set of stages a family will typically move through following disclosure.
Robinson, Walters and Skeen developed a model similar in style to the five stages of grief by Kubler-Ross (1969) characterised by the following stages; shock, denial, guilt, expression of feelings, decision making and acceptance. In essence, the parents must grieve the loss of the heterosexual identity they had assigned to the child and come to terms with this change in perceived identity which in truth never existed. This can be characterised in Ross’s father’s reaction of describing seeing Ross in a different light and also his crying over the loss of the certainty of grandchildren.
Another useful model is that of Bernstein (1990), a therapist who interviewed 62 parents of gay men and lesbians who were his clients. He found recurring themes such as social stigma, parents blaming themselves for the child’s sexual orientation and loss of hopes and dreams of a traditional family life to be the most prevalent. Fears over social isolation, discrimination and diseases such as AIDS also featured heavily in the research findings. These themes also arise in Ross’s story, particular in relation to his father who seems to display a more ‘usual’ reaction to his son’s coming out. He expresses to Ross his fears of him being harassed in the street in his home town and his self blame is evident in questions such as, “have we done anything wrong? What have we done?”
I have used a phenomenologically-orientated, relational-centred approach (Finlay and Evans, 2009) to complete this research paper. I aim to explore and describe the lived experience of Ross’s coming out as gay to his parents, to empathise with and absorb his subjective experience. The research data emerges out of the relationship and out of the “intersubjective space” between us (Finlay and Evans, 2009) giving rise to a rich and vivid exploration of this life changing event. The interview is a unique encounter in which our histories meet and shape our understanding of each other. I hope to achieve a sensitive and meaningful exploration of his experience and convey it in such a way as to honour its subjectivity and uniqueness.
Data collection and analysis
In order to collect date for this project I used a ‘relational centred phenomenological research design’. This can be explained as, “In research, as in Psychotherapy, we seek to build a bridge to the Other, using out own special awareness, skills, experience and knowledge. We reflect on the Other’s stories while simultaneously analysing our own responses and the dynamics of the evolving relationship between us (Finlay, and Evans 2009, page number needed for quotes).
The data was gathered via a one hour taped interview with Ross. It took place in my house, in the living room, sat on the sofa. It was my aim to make the environment as comfortable and calm as possible to encourage Ross to relax into his lived experience of the research topic. I asked him open questions and used my own self and presence to encourage a shared involvement in his experience. If I can be present with him, that is fully involved in the moment to moment co-creation of our relational experience, space is created for the story to emerge in a spontaneous and authentic way.
The tape of the interview was transcribed and this was used to enable me to analyse the meaning behind the words and understand how Ross has made sense of the story. It was important to fully immerse myself into the felt experience of the coming out and any emerging somatic understanding that would give clues as to how deeply he was affected. As I became familiar with the data, I was able to notice the emergence of key themes which seemed significant and to use these themes as a framework for creating an overall sense of the experience. I thought deeply about the words used, tone of voice, body language, facial expressions and feelings arising. This gave me a sense of how his inner world is constructed, how he is able to make sense of the sometimes incomprehensible and what was being conveyed underneath the words.
An important element of this approach is the researchers own impact on the data collected and how the researchers own unconscious process can undermine the quality of the interpretations. “Often relational researchers can be said to act as both witness (in seeking to represent participants’ experience) and author (in the way interpretations are made) (Finlay and Evans 2009) I have therefore reflected on my own assumptions, biases and fantasies in order to, as far as possible, ensure the interpretations are clear of my own projections. I will however analyse any counter transference which arises as this can be useful in understanding another’s perspective particularly if the understanding is not available to the others conscious awareness. Furthermore, the research participant is my friend and I have therefore given consideration as to how the relationship itself may impact my findings. This research has been co-created by myself and Ross,. I have tried as far as I am able to put aside any preconceived Ideas I may have had about his experience of coming out and rigorously reflect on my own influences and prior knowledge of him when making interpretations of his experience.
Ross is 27 years old and lives in Manchester, England. He is originally from Langholm, a small town just north of the Scottish borders. As he is known to me there are particular ethical considerations to take into account.
I asked Ross whether he would like me to protect his anonymity and he stated this was not necessary. I asked him on two occasions to be sure and both times he confirmed he wishes me to use his real name. He has signed a consent form to that effect. I have taken care to store the transcript of the interview safely and the taped recording will be deleted upon completion of the project.
I discussed the issue of confidentiality with Ross and that the purpose of the paper is to enable me to complete my Psychotherapy course and that the paper will be read by my tutors only. It is not my intention to have the paper published but if this position changed, I would return to him to seek further consent and again discuss any issues around anonymity and confidentiality.
I approached Ross about participating in this piece of research for two reasons. Firstly, I was interested in exploring the lived experience of coming out as gay to your parents and I was aware that Ross had done this a number of years ago. In addition, I was aware that any negative outcomes of the experience had been mediated by the passage of time to the point where Ross is able to enjoy a fairly healthy relationship with his parents in the present day. I asked him if he wished to be involved in the project and he accepted. As I was unaware of the specifics of his coming out I checked out with him whether the event was particularly traumatic and whether he was happy to talk about it openly whilst I asked him questions. He confirmed that whilst it was a very difficult time for him he felt comfortable talking about it. He was happy to participate in the interview and I explained that he could choose to stop at any time if he needed to. Furthermore, I gave him the option of seeing a Psychotherapist for a session, if unexpected traumatic memories or feelings arose during the course of the interview which he may need to process later.
“I was so nervous, I was actually shaking”
The story of Ross’s coming out is a difficult one punctuated by notes of hope and despair, fear and bravery, loss and regaining of self. As we embark on this hour long journey together it is clear from the downward tilt of his gaze and the nervous laughter that there is an air of uneasy anticipation between us. I ask him to remember the experience of telling his mother he is gay and as I do so his face tightens and his posture becomes stiff, vigilant. He begins by explaining how he had embarked on a relationship with a man who he met on the internet and who lived in Luton. Ross lived at his parent’s house in Langholm at the time and was in his late teens. He talked about how this relationship had blossomed and how he realised that “this isn’t just a phase. I really do like him and I can see that going forward, you know, I want a fella as a partner.”
He tells me about a visit to Luton fairly early on in the relationship when he goes to see his boyfriend for a few days. It was during this visit that he decides to tell his parents he is in a relationship with a man, “I’m going to phone my mother and I’m going to tell her because it’s a safe distance” I get a sense this was a spare of the moment decision and one that had a sense of urgency to it, like he needed to get things ‘off his chest’. There was an element of planning of the way he would do it, “on the phone yeah it’s a safe distance in case she does kick off”
As we begin to talk about his experience right before he makes the phone call, I suddenly get a sense of the enormity of our conversation and feel humbled to be witnessing such a profound story. It is as if we are about to unwrap the first layer of a precious gift, but that was enough because the layer would reveal a story in itself. We talk about the moments leading up to dialling the number and I can feel the intensity of his fear. The words he uses convey a sense of growing terror, “shaking……nervous……petrified”. This part of the interview was expressed in short, punchy sentences, heightening the sense of danger as if too many words would allow space for scary feelings to emerge. In the moment of making the call he hesitates, caught in the abyss between painful secrecy and unchartered openness, “I’d pressed the ring button but just before it started ringing, I hung up.”
He decides to try calling again, and I can feel the growing tension in the space between us as he describes lifting the phone receiver and dialling the number. In the endless moments while the phone rings he is in freefall and I am holding my breath, waiting to find out if he lands safely. Wanting to know and yet afraid of what is to come. His voice begins to tremble and he is now breathing in shallow, rapid gasps, “I was shaking. I was shaking. I was really, really nervous”.
The words he uses when coming out are significant and reveal what appears to be an attempt to soften the blow of the disclosure. When his mother initially answers the phone he tells her a story of how he has been visiting Luton and is seeing a man which she initially misinterprets as a friendly encounter. It seems the lack of explicit language such as “gay” or “boyfriend” serves to ensure that the details are revealed in a titrated fashion, perhaps to allow time for the message to sink in;
“She’s just thinking I’ve been hanging out with him or something like that and I went well no I’m actually going out with him and she sort of err just completely went silent then hung up the phone on me. So I thought oh well I’m not having that, I’m phoning back. Phoned back and there was no answer so I left it for ten minutes and I thought I’ll phone back again…and she answered. Erm…and she was really off with me, it was more the case of, she didn’t care how I felt about anything. Erm, her tone was really curt really sort of aggressive erm and she was more concerned about how my dad was going to react erm disappointed in what I’d…in what I’d done and obviously I said well I haven’t done anything, this has just happened it’s just developed so I haven’t done anything to you, you’re being selfish. I’m trying to tell you something that I find hard…”
I asked Ross about how he had felt in that moment when his mother had hung up the phone when she realised what he was saying, “…..it was like something had stabbed me in the heart….” As he tells the story, there is anxiety and anger in the room, probably my anger and his anxiety. His face becomes pale and his eyes are glassy, I can feel a sort of rage rising in me. The conversation seems to slow down at this point like he is moving in slow motion as his sense of self drains into the enormous gaps between the words. He speaks of the aftermath of the phone call “…..all this anxiety in your chest. The butterflies….you feel sick…a cold sweat as well. It was like, it was horrible.” Weaving through our conversation are strands of intense feeling, pain, terror, rage, burning loneliness. I wonder to myself how his body holds these vividly painful memories, whether the experience had been purged by the passage of time or still lurks deep in his unconscious, in the cells of his body, as fresh as the day they were created.
We talk about the day it was time for Ross to go home to his parents, “what if they don’t let me go back?” He was facing the prospect of whether to return home to live in what seemed to be a hostile environment, unsure of whether he would be even be welcome, “they might not want….the reaction I got out of her I thought uh-oh I might be stuck here” I noticed how he didn’t finish the sentence about his parents not wanting him to return home, it seemed the pain of the words was too much to speak.
A great deal of the anxiety around going home related to how Ross’s father would react to him living there and being gay, “he’s not living under my roof and doing that”. On the day of going home he had rang his mother to find out, “well can I come home or not or do I need to go to nan’s or what do I do?” The powerlessness of the statement is obvious and the anxiety of feeling so out of control is apparent. At this point in his life he is at a cross roads, the relationship with his parents frail and hanging by a thread. There is a sense of the hollowness of the relationship and as he talks it becomes apparent that this is a snapshot of a family history of misunderstandings and emotional distance. The narrative reveals an already fracturing mother-son connection, “it was another situation where she walked out on me.”
Secrets and Shame
“I’ve got to do what makes me happy and are you telling me now that that you want me to be unhappy by forcing myself into a relationship with a girl, get married and have two kids and be miserable for the rest of my life? And she pretty much said yes to that, that’s what she wanted.”
As Ross begins to talk about the experience of shame, his and his parents, I wonder if it’s too big for us both to hold. It seems very prevalent in his story from the beginning, like a black cloud looming on the horizon that we are both peering at nervously. A sliver of light appears as he talks of how the experience of being in Luton gave him confidence in his identity for it is here that he first experienced a sense of acceptance, “it was nice being in an environment where there was no sort of….nothing hidden about the fact that you were gay and they were all very open.”
This acceptance and openness is in stark contrast to his experience of living in a small town in Scotland where his sexual orientation was seen as something to be ashamed of and he risked being verbally or physically attacked because of it. We discuss the shame of being emotionally rejected by his mother, “She was like I don’t want to hear any more, don’t want to hear any more. Don’t want to listen to it” which was bound together with a more general prejudice experienced living in a community which was not accepting of his sexual identity. It seemed like an impossible situation for Ross but significantly, he does manage to continue with the relationship with the man from Luton for some time afterwards albeit in a hushed, hidden manner.
This lack of felt support feels very significant throughout the conversation. Even beyond that, there is an undercurrent of aversion towards him as a person and a desire to keep an important element of him under wraps. He describes his mother’s attempts to conceal his sexual identity, “well you can’t tell anybody, you’re certainly not telling your nan, you’re not telling your aunt, not telling your cousins or anything like that”. The assumption of “badness” is made explicit and it’s clear from Ross’s pained expression that he feels its full weight. He responds with, “I’m not going to allow you to make me quiet completely” which seems like a hollow grasp at asserting his own power and ok-ness which of course he does not feel, for how could he?
We begin to talk about his father, “Well with my dad erm we pretty much just had six weeks of sat at the dinner table….food was put down in front of me when I got back from work. There was no conversation erm didn’t talk, at all.” As we are talking I have a sudden, disturbing image of the food being put down on the floor. The silent treatment felt enormously painful to him and the shame of being consistently ignored at the dinner table seems like the cruellest sort of punishment. The image which came to me during this part of the interview also mirrors a comment made later when we discuss the history of his developing sexual identity, “they could smell there was something not quite right with me…it’s like if you go near a puppy….when the dog’s just had it….it’ll probably reject the puppy if it smells of you….” He doesn’t seem to notice the significance of the imagery, there is no trace of emotion on his face. I get a sense that this feeling is deeply buried in his unconscious, unexplored and unacknowledged, safely cut off from awareness but an ever present feature on the landscape of his life.
His speaks of his father’s reaction “He was crying about it….I don’t know why you’re like this, you know have we done anything wrong? What have we done?” The sympathetic response and Ross’s generosity and protection towards his father is apparent, “I know it’s going to take time for you to get your head around it.” It feels like an attempt to keep the fragile bond in tact, the underlying transaction seems to be please accept me in my badness and don’t abandon me. Sometimes the shame is overt; Ross describes instances of his father’s references to gay people as “fucking homo’s” and other derogatory terms. I wince at the language but Ross seems to hardly notice.
The interwoven themes of shame and rejection appear later in the narrative when we discuss the subsequent breakup of his relationship. “I was crying, I came home, didn’t want anything to eat….I came downstairs later on to go outside for a cig and she followed me out and she was asking me what was wrong, you seem upset and I told her I’d split up with Mark and it was almost like you could see her smiling…..” This part of the story seems so integral to his sense of being that I begin to feel a somatic experiencing of his pain in the form of a headache. It creeps up on me and goes unnoticed until the throbbing pain begins to distract me from the conversation. I wonder about its meaning, does this part of the story and its underlying theme resonate with something that is unresolved within me? Suddenly I’m angry at his mother’s selfishness, her blatant disregard for his feelings and obvious pleasure to hear of the breakup. Ross and I stare at each other, our jaws clenched in frustration. In a sentence he captures the essence of our mutual disgust, “it made me feel like you just don’t give a shit. You care about yourself, your reputation and that is more important than your own child going through hell.”
I got a sense that the coming out was a shameful secret from which many shaming encounters would emerge. The blanket of silence which had descended around the issue was a breeding ground for humiliation and helplessness, “I’m the one that’s got nobody to speak to about any of this because you don’t want to listen, you kick off.” The theme of keeping Ross’s homosexuality at a distance crops up regularly in his discourse however he does not always appear aware of it. It seems he has developed an ability to keep this part of himself estranged and distant and at times he talks in a monotonous, unemotional tone as though he has no empathic connection with his younger self. In these moments of disconnection from the past and from the painful memories of isolation, there is disconnection in the room between us. He becomes apathetic and I lose interest in the story, we collude in the hopelessness and mirror it back to each other.
“If she just said well, you’re coming home.”
The themes of hope and longing appear throughout the narrative, creating a fantasy of the availability of acknowledgment and acceptance from his parents and from his mother in particular. Then there is the raw, painful crash against reality which stops him in his tracks time and again, unveiling a sense of inevitable disappointment and ongoing disillusionment.
He describes his distress at the inability of his mother to provide a safe emotional connection to help him come to terms with his feelings. “And that’s what you’re supposed to be able to do with a parent, you’re supposed to be able to rely on them to be there to sort of help you through life and when they’re not there to help you through life and sort of fling everything back in your face, it’s really a hard thing to swallow. “ He has a sense of what is missing with both his mother and father and yet again the lack of felt support has emerged from within the narrative. Perhaps this is the most significant part of the story for it is this lack of a solid foundation from which all other difficult feelings seem to arise. Ross appears animated, angry his voice is much clearer now and there is a terse edge to the words he uses. I feel a deep sadness and wonder whether he feels it too.
The narrative is peppered with instances of where there is a hopeful expectation of support which is later dashed by his mother’s reaction. He says of the coming out, *I was sort of scared that erm she would wonder why I hadn’t told her before…..down about the fact I couldn’t speak to her…..I was hoping that would be her reaction” The actual reaction of hanging up the phone is not one he had envisioned and thus his expectations of feeling better after the disclosure do not come to fruition. Even after this he does not give up hope, “there was hope there as well that she would ring up and apologise that her reaction was a bit OTT” but again this was thwarted, “it didn’t come so that…..hope……got smashed out of the equation there as well.” His use of the word smashed is interesting and feels remarkably appropriate, the smashing of hope and ultimately, the smashing of his heart. In that moment, the essence of his coming out story is revealed to us; it is a tale of two sides, his and his parents, and of broken hopes, dreams and hearts, a sort of emotional wasteland in which nothing healthy and nourishing was able grow.
When he returns home from his trip to Luton the reunion is painful and rejecting. He paints a picture of a mother who is unaware of the impact of her lack of care and who is afraid of anything she doesn’t understand. The distance is revealed in the avoidance of acknowledgment of the presence of his boyfriend, “There was no question about the actual guy to see if he was suitable, gonna be suitable for me, the normal things that parents will do for you, to ensure that you’re sort of safe, protected, that they’re a good person that you’re seeing.”
As the atmosphere at home grows more difficult, “I was sick of the atmosphere in the house”, Ross decides to speak with his parents to attempt to sort things out. It seems his tolerance at being given the silent treatment had worn out and he felt he had to do something. He offers to take his mother out to lunch in Carlisle to discuss it with her, a gesture she accepts and Ross is understandably hopeful of progress. It seems as though another significant moment has arrived in the mother-son relationship, a chance to make amends and start afresh perhaps. Again Ross opens up about his struggles and makes himself vulnerable in an attempt to restore some sort of emotional connection. Sadly the hope comes to nothing, “she said she was disappointed” and what was intended to help the situation served only to deepen the division between them, “she turned it round on me and said how would I feel if it was my child telling me this? Which is quite hard to swallow when you’re sat there in front of somebody who is supposed to be your mother.”
We talk about his decision to leave home, a significant time in his life which is so intrinsically linked with the coming out that its exploration is likely to reveal hidden aspects of the lived experience not yet discovered. His sense of determination is apparent, “I’m not going to let you win on this” and “you can’t overpower me” I can see by the look on his face that he knew it to be true and his desire to live life on his own terms and not be “downtrodden” seemed to be a catalyst in the decision to leave Scotland. He describes giving his parents an ultimatum, “if you don’t stop this crap and this atmosphere….once I’ve moved down there I won’t be coming back up.” The moving away had given him the courage to express himself more openly and on the day of leaving he says “you don’t make me feel good, you don’t make me happy, you make me miserable.” Again the hope of connection re-emerges as another opportunity for his parents to make amends reveals itself. Again his hopes are dashed, “they didn’t say anything, they didn’t answer me.”
This seems to mark a turning point for him as he connects with the finality of the situation and a recognition that the longed for acceptance and support may never come. As he is getting ready to leave, his parents attempt to put him off going away by suggesting he is not capable of succeeding on his own. He describes crying about it in the car on his journey to Manchester, but also defiance, “you don’t listen to me so how are you to know what I can and cannot do.”
As we move toward the end of the interview, the cycle of hope and disillusionment starts to recede and is replaced by strands of acceptance, “well I’ve never had the support, they’re never going to change now” and perhaps the most poignant line of all, “when I was looking at them, I was looking at strangers.”
I ask him again about the phone call, I ask him if it could’ve been any other way what would he have needed to hear from his mother? He simply wanted her to say, you should’ve told me sooner and for her to have said “I love you to bits” and “I don’t understand it but I’m here” powerfully simple comments which would have soothed his heart but which never came.
The issues raised in this piece of research centre around the relationship between Ross and his parents. The themes which arise out of his coming out as gay namely fear, shame, loss and hope most likely also weave their way through his life story and so what seems like an isolated event really isn’t. It is much more likely that this episode represents a snapshot of an already fractured family and relationships which were never capable of truly holding his experience. I am doubtful that this is the first time that Ross had revealed a part of himself and was met with shame and rejected in some way. It would be incongruent for this to be a standalone event. This hunch is confirmed by glimpses in the narrative, he talks about how he struggled to communicate with his parents in general, how he felt “they’re just not going to listen” and he would become upset about that lack of attunement, and would then be “shouted at for being in tears about it.”
I get a sense of a family separate, each member together in their isolation. There is an acknowledgment of this by Ross, but also denial as he struggled to understand his place in the family and makes excuses for his parent’s lack of support. He takes the shame of his parents on as his own and tempers the feelings of abandonment by being the one who leaves, the rejecting rather than the rejected.
In Transactional Analysis terms, Ross is presenting in both his Child and Adult ego states (C2 and A2) although the seemingly rational and present tense elements of the dialogue could be coming from his Adult in the Child (A1) ego state. There is a childlike logic to a lot of the commentary particularly around his leaving home. The main injunctions which seem to feature are don’t be you, don’t exist, don’t feel, don’t be close and don’t belong. The lack of a sense of closeness is felt throughout, in his mothers aggressive and defensive response to his coming out and his father’s silence which translated to Ross as another rejection.
An important aspect of the story in therapeutic terms is the fact that there is no clear distinction between Ross as a multi-faceted human being and his sexual orientation. There seems to be not a rejection of the part (his homosexuality) but of the whole, as if his sexual orientation is not a part of him but all of him The rejecting and abandoning behaviour of his parents does not focus exclusively on his sexual identity but rather manifests as a rejection of him as a person and seems to be felt as such. In a therapeutic setting this would need to be explored in more depth and the meaning of the experience be uncovered. In time, the therapeutic ‘goal’ would be to enable the feelings to emerge within the safely of the therapeutic relationship allowing them to be experienced from the Child ego state (C1 and C2) and subsequently integrated into the Adult ego state (A2). This would also account for how his Adult ego boundaries lacked strength, at times there was a flimsy powerlessness to his tone of voice, his posture and his words. His driver behaviour manifested clearly in the form of “please others” and “try hard”, an attempt in the Child to maintain some semblance of relationship with the caregivers and a rejection of his own needs in the service of maintaining that fragile bond.
Perhaps the most striking aspect of the narrative is the relative absence of anger towards his parents for their lack of support. He acknowledges the shaming projections, “I don’t want you making me feel like I should be ashamed of anything…” and yet takes responsibility for his mothers angry reaction, “it was really, really difficult to erm sort of try and keep her calm”. This demonstrates Ross’s readiness to take on the shame and rejection and own them rather than accept his parent’s failings and limitations. This response is typical of those who have from a young age been trained to put others needs before their own. In these cases, the caregiver is unable to meet or even tolerate the child’s natural needs for emotional fulfilment in the form of attachment, mirroring, nurturing, protection etc. Rather, the parent may use the natural inclination of the child to idealise the parent as a means of securing a source of gratification of their own unmet emotional needs (Hargaden and Sills, 2002). He says of this, “It was all about her, her feelings, there was no, never any question how do you feel about it”
This type of emotional wounding occurs early in childhood and can be explained with reference to attachment theory, “attachment is characterized by specific behaviours in children such as seeking proximity with the attachment figure when upset or threatened.” (Bowlby, 1969). Therefore, if in times of distress the caregiver is unable to provide a safe place for the child to return to for comfort, the child will form an insecure attachment style and will fail to develop the ability to emotionally self regulate.
I think it will also inform the discussion to consider Erskine’s eight relational needs and how this relates to specifically the phone call in which Ross explains his sexuality to his mother. In this relatively short encounter, a great deal about the relationship is revealed. As I alluded to above, the telephone conversation is a microcosm of the relationship as a whole, a conscious here and now reflection of the unconscious symbiotic processes which bind them together. The relational needs are Erskine’s attempt to convey those needs which form part of adulthood and give us a sense of health and vitality in relationship. I don’t propose to discuss all eight but have chosen those to be the most relevant.
The need for security in relationship is primary and a sense of relational security is achieved when one can communicates one’s true self without the fear of being shamed in the revealing. The lack of safety is clearly demonstrated by the physical manifestations of anxiety prior, during and after the phone call and his use of words such as “petrified”. Even in a secure relationship, some degree of anxiety could be expected given the circumstances however the intensity of the fear suggests a very real assumption of abandonment on Ross’s part which triggers survival level fears in the Child ego state such as those described.
The need for self definition is also very significant here. This relates to the need for people to be accepted in their differences and for each of their constituent personality parts to be viewed in the context of a whole. As human beings we are all unique in our preferences and it is important for our emotional health that these unique qualities are accepted and validated by those who are significant to us. In this case, Ross’s sexuality, being in the minority is seen as something gone wrong. This is clear in his father’s anguished question ‘what have we done wrong?’
The need for the other to initiate contact is also important and in this instance was neglected. As Ross talks of the aftermath of the conversation with his mother and his anxieties about returning home, the unmet need to be approached by his mother is heartbreakingly clear, “if she just said well you’re coming home. What are you worried about coming home for? You’re coming home Ross.” This would have created in him a feeling of being safe, valued, accepted and loved which are the foundations of secure attachment and create a sense of wellbeing in adult relationships. When this is lacking, as in Ross’s case, there is a persistent underlying existential anxiety which likely manifests in his life in the here and now in deeply unconscious ways.
As I reflect on this piece of research, I am struck by the similarity with my own experiences of coming out. Like Ross, I came out to my mother on the telephone, the fear and confusion parallels mine but significantly I was older than Ross and lived away from home. I recall my mother’s reaction being less hostile. There was a greater emphasis on my needs and yet in some ways our story’s are strikingly similar. So how does this similarity influence the research? In what ways is it positive and negative? What factors enhance the quality of the research and what factors limit its value?
To answer these questions it is necessary to look at the ways in which the story is expressed, embodied and interpreted. The essence and lifeblood of the story emerges out of the relationship created during our hour long interview. The extent to which the writing reflects the lived experience is to some extent an unknown quantity, using words to convey experience will always have its limitations. Also, Ross’s recollection of events will be diluted by the passage of time and his memory may have added or deleted vital element of the experience, details may be stored in his subconscious which have yet to be processed and his own interpretation of events may not reflect how they actually occurred. In truth, I do not think this is so problematic in creating a meaningful piece of research for it is the meaning he assigns to the experience which is the subject of our exploration. The research attempts to capture an experience and evoke emotions in the reader which are congruent with the lived experience so there is a least a possibility that the reader may feel a degree of embodied understanding. It is in this way that the narrative becomes alive and meaningful as it touches and awakens the readers own feelings and empathic resonances which are the universal connections we share as human beings.
It is useful to consider my part in the co-creation of the relationship which is the source of meaning arising in the narrative. The relational space is the environment which allows the process to unfold and my role in the unfolding will almost certainly affect the quality of the research. For example, my ability to empathise with Ross’s situation is somewhat shaped by own experience and it is natural that I would use my own experience as a reference point for understanding his. Accordingly, when discussing his mothers reaction on the phone to his coming out, I felt a lot of disgust and anger towards her. Whilst I was aware of this, it certainly affected my objectivity and I was conscious of the need to stay with his experience rather than infuse the narrative with my own agenda.
My anger does in fact leak out when Ross says of the conversation with his mother, “I’m telling you something I find hard…” and I respond with “and you’re throwing it back in my face”. Here there is a clear interpretation of the situation based on my own angry feelings towards his mother. I want him to know that I get it, that we can be in the anger together but he declines the invitation by changing the subject.
As I reflect deeper on the presence of my anger throughout the narrative I come to realise that an element of projective identification may be taking place (Klein. 1952), that is Ross’s split off anger is being projected into me and I am behaving in accordance with the split off projected feelings. I notice there is an intensity to my anger which is not congruent with the story. I stay with the feelings of rage, trying to decipher what is hidden beneath them. The longer I stay with it, the more hopeless and overwhelmed I feel for I am holding the rage of an infant and of a teenage boy and I’m only really catching a glimpse of the true experience. I realise these feelings of rage and despair represent the core of his unconscious process which lead me to an important point. The idea of the “lived experience” of a particular event really has two elements; the conscious lived experience and the unconscious lived experience and these may differ significantly. Throughout this research I have been attempting to understand and interpret the conscious process however through this exploration the unconscious process also has revealed itself to me. It is my view that this expands the richness and authenticity of the research however it relies on the researcher having the ability to objectively and rigorously analyse and interpret the underlying meanings without the interference of their own unconscious process on the story.
Ten years after coming out to his parents, Ross now enjoys a civil relationship with them and visits Langholm a few times a year. There appears to be a degree of acceptance on their part and he has come to terms with this and is comfortable with his sexual orientation. In many ways the narrative reveals a fairly typical coming out story in that it progressed through a serious of stages, however in Ross’s case the stages were more protracted and had a deep impact on his view of himself. Many gay people find the coming out process traumatic for there is so much as stake and the views of society tend to compound the fear. Matters are made all the more difficult when the underlying parent-child relationship is fractured and there is a history of lack of felt support. In Ross’s case an abandonment did in fact take place and this can be framed into the context of his life as a whole. It might be seen to be the culmination of a lifetime of emotional misattunement and rejection. It was the catalyst for his decision to leave Scotland and create a new life in Manchester where he felt more comfortable and where there is a more accepting, embracing attitude to homosexuality. This research is valuable because it gives a sense of the enormous difficulty faced by gay people during the coming out process, a very exposing experience which often results in rejection, at least in the short term. I hope to have achieved a sensitive exploration of his experience so that the depth of its effect on him can be appreciated. In addition, there has been relatively little research on the experience of coming out and therefore this paper contributes to the evidence base.
I have found the research process an enriching experience which has enhanced my understanding of the importance of relationship in human connection. It has solidified my belief that relationship is the medium by which we are able to gain access to a true understanding of others and of ourselves. The relational space is therefore integral to our development of self and shapes our views of ourselves at the deepest level. The research grows out of my training as a TA Psychotherapist and my own experiences of therapy which places the relationship at the foundation of the healing and growth process. It is my experience that the quality of the therapeutic relationship is absolutely fundamental to the understanding of one’s own unconscious processes, allowing fragmented aspects to be brought into awareness to be witnessed and held in an empathic, contactful and loving environment. This research piece highlights the fact that without the presence of a protective, caring other, experiences such as those described are unable to be held or metabolised in a healthy way. The shaming experiences become split off and internalised and the lack of loving care of the other interpreted as due to a lack or deficiency of the self. This is apparent in Ross’s story and helps shape our understanding of him and of his lived experience of coming out.
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Appendix 1 – Transcript of interview
Appendix 2 – Project proposal form
Appendix 3 – Consent form